— By Bettina Aptheker (continued: page 3 of 3)
Ricky was also an astonishingly skilled teacher and therapist. Her workshop materials, for example, condensed complex theoretical ideas into two or three pages of block paragraphs on subjects such as: “A Working Definition of Racism,”‘ Working Assumptions for White Activists on Eliminating Racism,” “A Working Perspective on Jewish Liberation,” etc. She gave these guidelines away, dropping them everywhere, like so many seedlings. I believe that hundreds of us, maybe thousands, all over the world, have these guidelines, have reproduced them, are using them in classes, community groups, unions, churches, and synagogues. [These materials are available on this website under Ricky’s Writings .]
In the workshops Ricky was alert, poised, absolutely attending, and yet seemingly at ease. She exuded warmth, acceptance, compassion, and extended to people a feeling of unconditional love. She laughed at us: our foibles, our silly defenses, dodges, and self deceptions. She was confident that all forms of oppression, both those internalized within ourselves, and those inflicted on others, could be “unlearned.” Her confidence was based on experience. Over the years she told me workshop stories. These are a few I particularly remember.
A German-American woman at one workshop was barely audible as she stated her national origin. “Can you say ‘German-American’ a little louder, and with more pride?” Ricky asked. No, she couldn’t, she said, tears brimming. She was so ashamed of the German people; so overwhelmed with guilt. How old was she, Ricky asked, when Hitler came to power, and where was she living. She was five, and living in Massachusetts, and she could remember her father pounding the kitchen table, praising Hitler.
“And what did you do?” Ricky asked her. “Oh,” she replied, in a small voice, “I asked him why the Jews were so terrible?” “And what did your father answer?” Ricky asked. He had not answered the question. Instead, he had turned his fury on her. “So,” Ricky said, ever so softly, “so that was an act of resistance, wasn’t it?”
Startled, tears frozen in midstream. “An act of resistance,” she said, half as a question, and half as an affirmation. All kinds of stories tumbled out then, in a great jumble, as if some huge wreckage had been pulled out of the way, of things she had thought, and said, and done, of how she had acted in ways that were available to her, as a child, and later, in her adult years. ‘What is your nationality?” Ricky asked her again. “German-American,” she answered, in a clear, firm voice, “and I identify myself with those who resisted.”
In Israel a few years ago, Ricky did a workshop on unlearning anti-Semitism. She asked the people in the room if they could imagine a world in which anti-Semitism no longer existed. Nobody could. In fact, the question resulted in enormous upset and fear. Ricky explained: so much of Jewish identity is framed in opposition to anti-Semitism that if it were to disappear many Jews would feel themselves thrust toward a state of non-existence. This realization provided a new ground upon which to consider Jewish identity in the diaspora and in Israel, and to consider the ways in which Jews and Palestinians perceived themselves and each other.
A white woman in another workshop described her first grade teacher in the public school, a Black woman to whom she had been particularly attached with all the passion of her six-year-old self. Later in the workshop, Ricky had asked everyone to draw a picture of themselves with a person of another race whom they could remember from their childhood. This woman drew her first grade classroom in detail, with all of the desks, and many of the children; she could even remember some of the pictures that hung on the classroom walls. But where the teacher should have been there was a blank space. She could not draw the teacher. It turned out that her parents had taught her never to “notice” a person’s color; it wasn’t nice to call attention to it, “like you weren’t supposed to say anything about a person if they were handicapped.” By the end of the workshop the woman had drawn her picture with the teacher in it, thereby claiming one part of herself, while unlearning another.
At another workshop an African-American woman spoke forcefully about her many personal encounters with racism. Later, in the same session, a white lesbian spoke about her encounters with homophobia. In the discussion that followed, the Black woman said she couldn’t “relate” to the lesbian’s experiences. As Ricky told me the story I interrupted her, exploding- “But couldn’t she see that she was saying exactly the same thing that white people say to avoid dealing with racism?”
Ricky laughed at me, a warm, mellow, relaxed laugh. She was laughing at my impatience, and she was laughing at the ways in which human beings deny parts of reality, and parts of themselves. She said she let the discussion continue. Somewhere in midsentence the Black woman heard herself, and the meaning of her words. She broke off. The discussion turned; for the first time, she said, she could see the possibility of coalition. The lesbian woman cried. She had been heard and received.
The first time I publicly acknowledged my Jewish identity was on a panel with Ricky. It was a panel on Jewish women sponsored by the multicultural committee of the YWCA in Monterey, in April, 1981, in honor of Passover. Later that same year Ricky returned to the Monterey Peninsula to do a workshop. I participated. It was enormously helpful because I began to see a connection between my own racism and the ways in which I had internalized anti-Semitism as a Jew and homophobia as a lesbian.
Ricky’s vision of social change required relentless labor — to change consciousness, personally and politically, literally one-by-one, creating a rippling effect, ad infinitum. She embodied this consciousness in herself to the extent made possible by the historical conditions of her life. For this she was deeply loved by those whose lives she touched. It was the love you feel for someone whose capacity for unconditional acceptance sets at least a part of yourself free.
I believe also that as a woman enmeshed in the complex meanings of reality, Ricky was never able to embrace herself fully, or free herself from the oppression of male supremacy in its varied forms. It was an oppression she acknowledged intellectually, but only at a distance. Yet everything about her work, her style, her charisma, evoked a definite and peculiarly female sensibility that made her so profoundly effective.
In her essay, “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens,” Alice Walker described her mother as she worked in her garden: “I notice that it is only when my mother is working in her flowers that she is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible – except as Creator: hand and eye. She is involved in work her soul must have,” Ricky was radiant like this in her workshops. They were her flowers; she taught us how to bloom.
Chavera yikara, dear friend.
Ohevet ha-Shalom, lover of peace
Bettina Aptheker teaches Women’s Studies At University of California, Santa Cruz. Her most recent book is Tapestries of Life: Women’s Work, Women’s Consciousness and the Meaning of Daily Experience (1989, U. of Mass. Press) She is a lesbian, the mother of two children and co-parent to a third.
This article was first printed in Bridges Jewish Feminist Journal in1989.